Mit ‘Debt’ getaggte Beiträge

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Im folgenden Crash Course World History #202 wird die von David Graeber vertretene Hypothese zur Entstehung von Geld kritisch untersucht:

ON THE EXPERIENCE OF MORAL CONFUSION (David Graeber)

If history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong. Mafiosi understand this. So do the commanders of debt_graeberconquering armies. For thousands of years violent men have been able to tell their victims that those vicitims owe them something. If nothing else, they „owe them their lives“ (a telling phrase) because they haven’t been killed.
Third World debtor nations are almost exclusively countries that have at one time been attacked and conquered by European countries – often the very countries to whom they now owe money. In 1895, France invaded Madagascar, disbanded the government of Queen Ranavalona III, and declared the country a French colony. One of the first things General Gallieni did after „pacification,“ as they liked to call it, was to impose heavy taxes on the Malagasy population, in
part so they could reimburse the costs of having been invaded, but also, since French colonies were supposed to be fiscally self-supporting, to defray the costs of building the railroads, highways, bridges, plantations, and so forth that the French regime wished to build. Malagasy taxpayers were never asked whether they wanted these railways, bridges, and plantations, or allowed much input into where and how they were built. To the contrary: over the next half century, the French army and police slaughtered quite a number of Malagasy who objected too strongly to the arrangement (upwards of half a million, by some reports, during one revolt in 1947).
It’s not as if Madagascar has ever done any comparable damage to France. Despite this, from the beginning, the Malagasy people were told they owed France money, and to this day, the Malagasy people are still held to owe France money, and the rest of the world accepts the justice of this arrangement. If the „international community“ does perceive a moral issue, it’s usually when they feel the Malagasy government is being slow to pay their debts.
But debt is not just victor’s justice; it can also be a way of punishing winners who weren’t supposed to win. The most spectacular example of this is the history of the Republic of Haiti – the first poor country to be placed in permanent debt peonage [= Schuldknechtschaft]. Haiti was a nation founded by former plantation slaves who had the temerity not only
to rise up in rebellion, amidst grand declarations of universal rights and freedoms [in the course of the French Revolution in 1789], but to defeat Napoleon’s armies sent to return them to bondage. France immediately insisted that the new republic owed it 150 million francs in damages for the expropriated plantations, as well as the expenses of outfitting the failed military expeditions, and all other nations, including the United States, agreed to impose an embargo on
the country until it was paid. The sum was intentionally impossible (equivalent to about 18 billion dollars), and the resultant embargo ensured that the name „Haiti“ has been a synonym for debt, poverty, and human misery ever since.
Sometimes, though, debt seems to mean the very opposite. Starting in the 1980s, the United States, which insisted on strict terms for the repayment of Third World debt, itself accrued debts that easily dwarfed those of the entire Third World combined – mainly fueled by military spending. The U.S. foreign debt, though, takes the form of treasury bonds held by institutional investors in countries (Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Gulf States) that are in most cases, effectively, U.S. military protectorates, most covered in U.S. bases full of arms and equipment paid for with that very deficit spending. This has changed a little now that China has gotten in on the game, but not very much – even China finds that the fact it holds so many u.s. treasury bonds makes it to so me degree beholden to U.S. interesrs, rather than
the other way around.
So what is the status of all this money continually being funneled into the U.S. treasury? Are these loans? Or is it tribute? In the past, military powers that maintained hundreds of military bases outside their own home territory were ordinarily referred to as „empires,“ and empires regularly demanded tribute from subject peoples. The u.s. government, of course, insists that it is not an empire — but one could easily make a case that the only reason it insists on treating these payments as „loans“ and not as „tribute“ is precisely to deny the reality of what’s going on.
Now, it’s true that, throughout history, certain sorts of debt, and certain sorts of debtor, have always been treated differently than others. In the 1720s, one of the things that most scandalized the British public when conditions at debtors‘ prisons were exposed in the popular press was the fact that these prisons were regularly divided into two sections. Aristocratic inmates, who often thought of abrief stay in Fleet or Marshalsea as something of a fashion statement, were wined and dined by servants and allowed to receive regular visits from prostitutes. On the „common side,“ impoverished debtors were shackled together in tiny cells, „covered with filth and vermin,“ as one report put it, „and suffered to die, without pity, of hunger and jail fever.“
In a way you can see current world economic arrangements as a much larger version of the same thing: the U.S. in this ca se being the Cadillac debtor, Madagascar the pauper starving in the next cell – while the Cadillac debtors‘ servants lecture him on how his problems are due to his own irresponsibility.
And there’s something more fundamental going on here, a philosophical question, even, that we might do well to contemplate. What is the difference between a gangster pulling out a gun and demanding you give him a thousand dollars of „protection money,“ and that same gangster pulling out a gun and demanding you .provide him with a thousand-dollar „loan“? In most ways, obviously, nothing. But in certain ways there is a difference. As in the case of the U.S. debt to Korea or Japan, were the balance of power at any point to shift, were America to lose its military supremacy, were the gangster to lose his henchmen, that „loan“ might start being treated very differently. It might become a genuine liability. But the crucial element would still seem to be the gun.
There’s an old vaudeville gag that makes the same point even more elegantly – here, as improved on by Steve Wright:
I was walking down the street with a friend the other day and a guy with a gun jumps out of an alley and says „stick ‚em up.“ As I pull out my wallet, I figure, „shouldn’t be a total loss.“ So I pull out some money, turn to my friend and say, „Hey, Fred, here’s that fifty bucks I owe you.“ The robber was so offended he took out a thousand dollars of his own money, forced Fred to lend it to me at gunpoint, and then took it back again.
In the final analysis, the man with the gun doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. But in order to be able to run even a regime based on violence effectively, one needs to establish some kind of set of rules. The rules can be completely arbitrary. In a way it doesn’t even matter what they are. Or, at least, it doesn’t matter at first. The problem is, the moment one starts framing things in terms of debt, people will inevitably start asking who really owes what to whom.
Arguments about debt have been going on for at least five thousand years. For most of human history – at least, the history of states and empires – most human beings have been told that they are debtors.
[…] For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors – of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors‘ children into slavery. By the same token, for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of the debt records – tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place. (After that, rebels usually go after the records of landholding and tax assessments.) As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: „Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.“
I. EARLY CIVILIZATIONS – MESOPOTAMIA: CRUELTY AND REDEMPTION
„We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals.“ (Amos)

This chapter discusses the role of debt in the emergence of states in the early Mesopotamian cizilization. The Mesopotamian civilization is the best-documented, more so than that of Pharaonic Egypt, Shang China, or the Indus Valley civilization when it comes to the question of the emergence of the first states and what this had to do with the changes in the economic and social relations among people.

MONEY AND CREDIT
Money was not the product of commercial transactions. Money was created by bureaucrats (= temple officials and priests) who developed a system of accountancy in order to keep track of resources and to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans…) in silver. Merchants were among the few people who did actually use silver in transactions; but even they did much of their dealings on credit.
The Sumerian economy (in Mesopotamia) was dominated by vast temple and palace complexes. These were often staffed by thousands: priests and officials, craftspeople who worked in their industrial workshops, farmers and shepherds who worked their considerable estates. Even though ancient Sumer was usually divided into a large number of independent city-states, by the time the curtain goes up on Mesopotamian civilization around 3500 B.C., temple administrators already appear to have developed a single, uniform system of accountancy – one that is in some ways still with us, actually, because it’s to the Sumerians that we owe such things as the dozen or the 24-hour day. The basic monetary unit was the silver shekel. One shekel’s weight in silver was established as the equivalent of one bushel of barley. A shekel was subdivided into 60 minas, corresponding to one portion of barley – on the principle that there were 30 days in a month, and Temple workers received two rations of barley every day. It’s easy to see that money in this sense is in no way the product of commercial transactions (as has been claimed by some Historians and Economists). It was actually created by bureaucrats in order to keep track of resources and move things back and forth between departments. Temple bureaucrats used the system to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans…) in silver. Silver was, effectively, money. And it did indeed circulate in the form of unworked chunks, „rude bars“ as the Economist Adam Smith had put it. But opposed to popular ideas about money circulating on markets, in this case the silver did not circulate very much. Most of it just sat around in Temple and Palace treasuries, some of which remained, carefully guarded, in the same place for literally thousands of years. It would have been easy enough to standardize the ingots (= Silberbarren), stamp them and create some authoritative system to guarantee their purity. The technology existed.
Yet no one saw any particular need to do so. One reason was that while debts were calculated in silver, they did not have to be paid in silver – in fact, they could be paid in more or less anything one had around. Peasants who had to pay tribute or tax to the Temple or Palace, or who owed money to some Temple or Palace official, seem to have settled their debts mostly in barley, which is why fixing the ratio of silver to barley was so important. But it was perfectly acceptable to show up with goats, or furniture, or lapis lazuli. Temples and Palaces were huge industrial operations – they could find a use for almost anything. In the marketplaces that cropped up in Mesopotamian cities, prices were also calculated in silver, and the prices of commodities that weren’t entirely controlled by the Temples and Palaces would tend to fluctuate according to supply and demand.
But even here, evidence suggests that most transactions were based on credit. Merchants – who sometimes worked for the Temples, sometimes operated independently – were among the few people who did, often, actually use silver in transactions; but even they mostly did much of their dealings on credit, and ordinary people buying beer from „ale women“, or local innkeepers, once again, did so by running up a tab, to be settled at harvest time in barley or anything they might have had at hand.
DEBT CRISES, CLEAN PLATE EDICTS & THE LAW OF JUBILEE
Especially in years of bad harvests some kind of debt crises developed and became common in Mesopotamian societies and later in the Persian Empire as well as in the early Hebrew kingdoms and in ancient Greek city states. Some farmers became indebted to rich neighbors or to the temple or to wealthy moneylenders in the towns, they would begin to lose title to their fields and to become tenants on what had been their own land, and their sons and daughters would be removed to serve as servants in their creditors‘ households, or even sold abroad as slaves. In the case of complete insolvency, the debtor himself might lose his own freedom as well.
In the book of Nehemia, one of the books of the Old Testament, some evidence is found about how debt crises were dealt with in ancient civilizations. Nehemia was a Jew born in Babylon in the 5th centura B.C. who was appointed by the Persian King as governor of his native Judaea. He also received permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar more than two centuries earlier. In the course of rebuilding, sacred texts were recovered and restored. In a sense, this was the moment of the creation of what we now consider Judaism. When appointed as governer of Judaea, Nehemiah quickly found himself confronted with a social crisis. All around him, impoverished peasants were unable to pay their taxes; creditors were carrying off the children of the poor. His first response was to issue a classic Babylonian-style clean plate edict – having himself been born in Babylon, he was clearly familiar with the general principle. All non-commercial debts were to be forgiven. Maximum interest rates were set. At the same time, though, Nehemiah managed to locate, revise, and reissue much older Jewish laws, now preserved in Leviticus, which in certain ways went even further, by institutionalizing the principle. The most famous of these is the Law of Jubilee: a law that stipulated that all debts would be automatically cancelled in the Sabbath year (that is, after seven years had passed), and that all who languished in bondage owing to such debts would be released.
Freedom, in the Bible, as in Mesopotamia, came to refer above all to release from the effects of debt. Over time, the history of the Jewish people itself came to be interpreted in this light: the liberation from bondage in Egypt was God’s first, paradigmatic act of redemption. The historical tribulations of the Jews (defeat, conquest, exile) were seen as misfortunes that would eventually lead to a final redemption with the coming of the Messiah – though this could only be accomplished, prophets such as Jeremiah warned them, after the Jewish people truly repented of their sins like carrying each other off into bondage or worshipping of false Gods. In this light, the adoption of the term by Christians is hardly surprising. Redemption was a release from one’s burden of sin and guilt, and the end of history would be that moment when all slates are wiped clean and all debts finally lifted when a great blast from angelic trumpets will announce the final Jubilee. If so, redemption is a matter of destroying the entire system of accounting. In many Middle Eastern cities, this was literally true: one of the common acts during debt cancelation was the ceremonial destruction of the tablets on which financial records had been kept. This act was to be repeated, much less officially, in just about every major peasant revolt in history.
In his Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus Christ dealt with the problem of redemption from debt. The parable is quite an extraordinary text and has long been a challenge to theologians. Certainly, the unforgiving servant is a genuinely odious character. Still, what is maybe more striking is the tacit suggestion that forgiveness, in this world, is ultimately impossible. Christians practically say as much every time they recite the Lord’s Prayer, and ask God to „forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.“ It repeats the story of the parable almost exactly, and the implications are similarly dire. After all, most Christians reciting the prayer are probably aware that they do not generally forgive their debtors. Why then should God forgive them their sins? Jewish and Chrisitan religion as well as other World religions, are full of this kind of ambivalence. On the one hand they are outcries against the market; on the other, they tend to frame their objections in commercial terms – as if to argue that turning human life and social relations into a series of transactions is not a very good deal. What these few examples reveal, though, is how much is being papered over in the conventional accounts of the origins and history of money and the state.
When people in ancient civilizations thought about money, some might have thought about their tab at the local ale-house, or, if they were a merchant or administrator, of storehouses or account books. For many, though, what was likely to come to mind was the selling of slaves and ransoming of prisoners, corrupt tax-farmers and the depredations of conquering armies, mortgages and interest, theft and extortion, revenge and punishment, and, above all, the tension between the need for money to create families, to acquire a bride so as to have children, and use of that same money to destroy families – to create debts that lead to the same wife and children being taken away. „Some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them.“ One can only imagine what those words meant, emotionally, to a father in a patriarchal society in which a man’s ability to protect the honor of his family was everything. Yet this is what money meant to the majority of people for most of human history: the terrifying prospect of one’s sons and daughters being carried off to the homes of repulsive strangers to clean their pots and provide the occasional sexual services, to be subject to every conceivable form of violence and abuse, possibly for years, conceivably forever, as their parents waited, helpless. Technically, daughters taken in debt bondage were not, if virgins, expected to be sexually available to creditors who did not wish to marry them or marry them to their sons. But even as laws protected them, fathers must often have had little means to protect them or cause those laws to be enforced. Clearly this was the worst thing that could happen to anyone – which is why, in the parable, it could be treated as interchangeable with being „turned over to the jailors to be tortured“ for life. And that’s just from the perspective of the father. One can only imagine how it might have felt to be the daughter. Yet, over the course of human history, untold millions of sons and daughters have known (and in fact many still know) exactly what it’s like.
What’s striking about the historical record is that in the case of debt crises, debt was considered a moral issue, a matter of right and wrong. It’s particularly striking because so many other things do seem to have been accepted as simply in the nature of things. One does not see a similar outcry against caste systems, for example. Why was it that the debtors‘ protests seemed to carry such greater moral weight? Why were debtors so much more effective in winning the ear of priests, prophets, officials, and social reformers? Why was it that officials like Nehemiah were willing to give such sympathetic consideration to their complaints? Some have suggested practical reasons: debt crises destroyed the free peasantry, and it was free peasants who were drafted into ancient armies to fight in wars. No doubt this was a factor; clearly it wasn’t the only one. There is no reason to believe that Nehemiah, for instance, in his anger at the usurers, was primarily concerned with his ability to levy troops for the Persian king.
It is something more fundamental. What makes debt different is that it is premised on an assumption of equality. In the case of debt, we are dealing with two individuals who begin as equal parties to a contract. Legally, at least as far as the contract is concerned, they are the same. We can add that, in the ancient world, when people who actually were more or less social equals loaned money to one another, the terms appear to have normally been quite generous. Often no interest was charged, or if it was, it was very low. Between close kin, many „loans“ were probably, then as now, just gifts that no one seriously expected to recover. Loans between rich and poor were something else again.
The problem was that, unlike status distinctions like caste or slavery, the line between rich and poor was never precisely drawn. One can imagine the reaction of a farmer who went up to the house of a wealthy cousin, on the assumption that „humans help each other,“ and ended up, a year or two later, watching his vineyard seized and his sons and daughters led away. Such behavior could be justified, in legal terms, by insisting that the loan was not a form of mutual aid but a commercial relationship – a contract is a contract. It also required a certain reliable access to superior force. But it could only have felt like a terrible betrayal. What’s more, framing it as a breach of contract meant stating that this was, in fact, a moral issue: these two parties ought to be equals, but one had failed to honor the bargain. Psychologically, this can only have made the indignity of the debtor’s condition all the more painful, since it made it possible to say that it was his own turpitude that sealed his daughter’s fate. But that just made the motive all the more compelling to throw back the moral aspersions: „Our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children.“ We are all the same people. We have a responsibility to take account of one another’s needs and interests. How then could my brother do this to me?
In the Old Testament case, debtors were able to marshall a particularly powerful moral argument – as the authors of Deuteronomy constantly reminded their readers, were not the Jews all slaves in Egypt, and had they not all been redeemed by God? Was it right, when they had all been given this promised land to share, for some to take that land away from others? Was it right for a population of liberated slaves to go about enslaving one another’s children? Contemporary language of social justice, our way of speaking of human bondage and emancipation, continues to echo ancient arguments about debt.
Analogous arguments were being made in similar situations almost everywhere in the ancient world: in Athens, in Rome, and for that matter, in China – where legend had it that coinage itself was first invented by an ancient emperor to redeem the children of families who had been forced to sell them after a series of devastating floods. Through most of history, when overt political conflict between classes of poor and rich did appear, it took the form of pleas for debt cancellation – the freeing of those in bondage, and usually, a more just reallocation of the land. What we see, in the Bible and other religious traditions, are traces of the moral arguments by which such claims were justified, usually subject to all sorts of imaginative twists and turns, but inevitably, to some degree, incorporating the language of the marketplace itself.

ANCIENT GREECE

Die antike griechische Gesellschaft und Kultur hat sich im Kontakt mit den Hochkulturen des Nahen Ostens (Mesopotamien und Ägypten) im Laufe des ersten Jahrtausends vor Christus entwickelt. Es gab also einen Wissens- und Kulturtransfer von Osten nach Westen. Auch innerhalb des griechischen Kulturkreises lag das Zentrum zu Beginn in den östlichen Gebieten in Kleinasien. In griechischen Städten in Kleinasien (z.B. Milet) wurde sowohl das Münzwesen (coinage) als auch die Philosophie, die Astronomie und die Mathematik zuerst entwickelt (z.B. Thales von Milet -> Satz von Thales) diese Neuerungen breiteten sich dann in das Zentrum Griechenlands und die griechischen Kolonien rings um das Mittelmeer aus. Antike_Karte_Griechenland_5_Jhd

1.    Athens Aufstieg im 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr.

Im antiken Griechenland gab es mehrere hundert Stadtstaaten (city states), das waren Gemeinden oder Städte und ihr Umland mit oft nur wenigen hundert km2 Fläche. Der rund 2500 km2 umfassende Stadtstaat Athen mit geschätzt 200.000 Bewohner_innen wurde erst im Laufe des 5. Jhd. vor Chr. zur bedeutendsten griechischen Polis (Stadtstaat). Dafür gab es u.a. folgende Gründe:

  • Das Silber: Die reichen Vorkommen von Kupfer, Blei, Zink und Silber, die in den Bergwerken von Laureion abgebaut
  • Die Perserkriege: Die Siege des Athenischen Heeres und der mit den Einkünften aus dem Silberbergbau finanzierten Athenischen Kriegsflotte gegen das persische Heer zwischen 490 (Marathon) und 480 v. Chr. Die Athener befreiten die griechischen Kolonien an der Küste Kleinasiens (heutige Türkei) von der Oberhoheit der persischen Könige.

Die Kriegsführung und die politische Macht waren lange Zeit in den meisten griechischen poleis (Stadtstaaten) Sache des Adels (= Aristokraten). 2.    Die Besitzlosen, der Krieg und die Demokratie Insbesondere in der Frage des Krieges gab es aber in vielen Stadtstaaten demokratische Mitbestimmungsrechte der Bevölkerung. Es wird hier von sogenannten Hoplitenpoliteia gesprochen. So stimmten in Sparta alle Teilnehmer der Wehrversammlung, also der Versammlung aller wehrpflichtigen Bürger (= Hopliten) über Krieg oder Frieden ab. Schließlich waren sie es, die ihre Bauernhöfe und damit ihre wirtschaftliche Lebensgrundlage verlassen und in den Krieg ziehen mussten. Wie war die Situation in Athen vor den Perserkriegen? Sklaven und Frauen waren ohne politische Mitbestimmungsrechte. Das aktive Wahlrecht (= Stimme in der Volksversammlung) und das passive Wahlrecht (= Wählbarkeit für alle Staatsämter) in Athen war den vermögenden männlichen Staatsbürgern vorbehalten, über Krieg oder Frieden stimmten alle Wehrpflichtigen ab. Die Wehrpflichtigen mussten je nach Vermögen als schwerbewaffnete Reiter (als Teil der Kavallerie) oder als Hopliten (Fußsoldaten der Infanterie) in den Krieg ziehen, wobei sie für die Kosten der Ausrüstung, der Waffen (und des Pferdes) selbst aufkommen mussten. Besitzlose und Lohnarbeiter (Theten) waren bis zu den Perserkriegen zwar die Teilnahme an der Volksversammlung erlaubt, sie waren aber de facto von politischer Mitbestimmung ausgeschlossen. Nachdem Theten als Ruderer auf den Kriegsschiffen eine wichtige Rolle bei der Besiegung der Persischen Flotte gespielt hatten, wurde ihnen mit der Bezahlung von Taggeldern unter Perikles die Teilnahme am politischen Leben ermöglicht. Athen erkämpfte sich im attischen Seebund, einem Militärbündnis mehrerer griechischer Städte, im Laufe des 5. Jahrhunderts die führende Stellung und kassierte Geld von den Bündnispartnern im Gegenzug für die Garantie, sie im Kriegsfall zu verteidigen.  Mit den Einnahmen wurde u.a. der Bau des bekannten Stadttempels auf der Akropolis finanziert.

3.    die Ökonomie und die Metöken

  Das Wort Ökonomie (economy) stammt vom griechischen oikos, dem Wort für Haus. Die Wirtschaft in griechischen Stadtstaaten war zunächst in wesentlich geringerem Ausmaß als heute auf die Produktion für den Austausch oder für den Verkauf der Produkte als Waren (commodities) auf dem Markt ausgerichtet. Ursprünglich gab es überwiegend sogenannte geschlossene (= autarke) Hauswirtschaften. Dort wurde auch mithilfe von Sklavenarbeit auf Äckern und Weiden sowie in der Werkstatt der Eigenbedarf an Nahrungsmitteln, Kleidung und Geräten hergestellt. Der Anbau von Oliven und Wein und die Produktion von Olivenöl und Wein waren nur den größeren Betrieben möglich und erst mit der Entwicklung des Handels rentabel. Der Überschuss, der nicht von der eigenen Hauswirtschaft konsumiert wurde, wurde auf dem Markt verkauft. Im Falle von Athen waren dies v.a. Wein und Oliven. Mit den immer zahlreicher werdenden Kriegen erhielten auch der Handel und die Geldwirtschaft immer größere Bedeutung. Händler und auch Handwerker in Athen waren mehrheitlich sogenannte Metöken (metics), das heißt „Mitbewohner“, die aus anderen Teilen Griechenlands nach Athen eingewandert waren. Sie waren zwar verpflichtet, Abgaben und Steuern zu bezahlen, nahmen aber nicht als Hopliten an Kriegen teil und waren auch ohne politische Mitspracherechte. Insbesondere für die Aristokraten galten die Tätigkeiten von Händlern und Handwerkern („Banausen“) als wenig ehrenhaft, für sie kam nur die Leitung landwirtschaftlicher Betriebe und natürlich die Kriegsführung als standesgemäße Tätigkeiten in Frage. Honor and debt in Ancient Greece

Homer (Ὅμηρος, Hómēros) is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, he lived in the 8th century BC. His epics have had an enormous influence on the history of literature. The Iliad relates the story of the Trojan War that supposedly took place in the 12th century BC.

The world of the Homeric epics is one dominated by heroic warriors like Ulysses who are disdainful of trade. Aristocrats lived their lives in pursuit of honor, which took material form in followers (or retainers) and treasure. Treasures were given as gifts, awarded as prizes for retainers or carried off as loot as was the case in the legendary Trojan war. In heroic societies, the role of violence is not hidden – it is glorified. In the Iliad, Achilles sees nothing shamefull in his relation with his slave-girl, Briseis, whose husband and brothers he killed. He refers to her as his „prize of honor“ and says, „so I from my heart loved this one, even though I won her with my spear.“ This is no doubt how „time“first came to mean both „honor“ and „price“ – in such a world, no one sensed any sort of contradiction between the two. All this was to change during the period labeled the “Axial Age”: As commercial markets developed, Greek cities quickly developed all the social problems that had been plaguing Middle Eastern cities for millennia: debt crises, debt resistance, political unrest. TheGreek word crisis (κρίσις)literally refers to a crossroads: it is the point where things could go either two different ways, a point where a decision has to be taken. What we see above all in the debt crises that struck so many Greek cities around 600 BC, right around the time that commercial markets were first taking shape, istheerosion both of older forms of hierarchy – the Homeric world of great aristocratic men with their retainers – and, at the same time, of older forms of mutual aid, with communistic relations (= non-commercial human relations) increasingly being confined to the interior of the household. It’s the former – the erosion of hierarchy – that really seems to have been at stake. Even in Homeric society, it was assumed as a matter of course that rich men would live surrounded by dependents and retainers, drawn from the ranks of the dependent poor. The critical thing, though, about such relations of patronage is that they involved responsibilities on both sides. Anoble warrior and his humble client were assumed to be fundamentally different sorts of people, but both were also expected to take account of each other’s (fundamentally different) needs. Transforming patronage into debt relations – treating, say, an advance of seed corn as a loan, let alone an interest-bearing loan – changed all this. What’s more, it did so in two completely contradictory respects. On the one hand, a loan implies no ongoing responsibilities on the part of the creditor. On the other, a loan does assume a certain formal, legal equality between contractor and contractee, between creditor and debtor. It assumes that they are, at least in some ways on some level, fundamentally the same kind of person. (mehr …)

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Map of Ancient Mesopotamia„We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals.“ (Amos)

This chapter discusses the role of debt in the emergence of states in the early Mesopotamian civilization. The Mesopotamian civilization is the best-documented, more so than that of Pharaonic Egypt, Shang China, or the Indus Valley civilization when it comes to the question of the emergence of the first states and what this had to do with the changes in the economic and social relations among people.
MONEY AND CREDIT
Money was not the product of commercial transactions. Money was created by bureaucrats (= temple officials and priests) who developed a system of accountancy in order to keep track of resources and to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans…) in silver. Merchants were among the few people who did actually use silver in transactions; but even they did much of their dealings on credit.
The Sumerian economy (in Mesopotamia) was dominated by vast temple and palace complexes. These were often staffed by thousands: priests and officials, craftspeople who worked in their industrial workshops, farmers and shepherds who worked their considerable estates. Even though ancient Sumer was usually divided into a large number of independent Cuneiform_Tabletcity-states, by the time the curtain goes up on Mesopotamian civilization around 3500 B.C., temple administrators already appear to have developed a single, uniform system of accountancy – one that is in some ways still with us, actually, because it’s to the Sumerians that we owe such things as the dozen or the 24-hour day. The basic monetary unit was the silver shekel. One shekel’s weight in silver was established as the equivalent of one bushel of barley. A shekel was subdivided into 60 minas, corresponding to one portion of barley – on the principle that there were 30 days in a month, and Temple workers received two rations of barley every day. It’s easy to see that money in this sense is in no way the product of commercial transactions (as has been claimed by some Historians and Economists). It was actually created by bureaucrats in order to keep track of resources and move things back and forth between departments. Temple bureaucrats used the system to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans…) in silver. Silver was, effectively, money. And it did indeed circulate in the form of unworked chunks, „rude bars“ as the Economist Adam Smith had put it. But opposed to popular ideas about money circulating on markets, in this case the silver did not circulate very much. Most of it just sat around in Temple and Palace treasuries, some of which remained, carefully guarded, in the same place for literally thousands of years. It would have been easy enough to standardize the ingots (= Silberbarren), stamp them and create some authoritative system to guarantee their purity. The technology existed. Yet no one saw any particular need to do so. One reason was that while debts were calculated in silver, they did not have to be paid in silver – in fact, they could be paid in more or less anything one had around. Peasants who had to pay tribute or tax to the Temple or Palace, or who owed money to some Temple or Palace official, seem to have settled their debts mostly in barley, which is why fixing the ratio of silver to barley was so important. But it was perfectly acceptable to show up with goats, or furniture, or lapis lazuli. Temples and Palaces were huge industrial operations – they could find a use for almost anything. In the marketplaces that cropped up in Mesopotamian cities, prices were also calculated in silver, and the prices of commodities that weren’t entirely controlled by the Temples and Palaces would tend to fluctuate according to supply and demand.
But even here, evidence suggests that most transactions were based on credit. Merchants – who sometimes worked for the Temples, sometimes operated independently – were among the few people who did, often, actually use silver in transactions; but even they mostly did much of their dealings on credit, and ordinary people buying beer from „ale women“, or local innkeepers, once again, did so by running up a tab, to be settled at harvest time in barley or anything they might have had at hand.

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